THE Radio 4 programme The Spark (Wednesday of last week) is dedicated to “answering the world’s most urgent questions”. It is “your guide to the ideas shaping the future”. The puff conforms to a well-known law of inverse proportion; for there could hardly be a more innocuous show currently on the airwaves — an extended interview with an academic, which might have sat comfortably in any number of Radio 4 strands.
You might believe that Professor Emily Oster’s research into child-rearing will “shape the future”, but debates about swaddling, breastfeeding, and controlled crying can be counted among the world’s most urgent only to sleep-deprived parents of newly-borns, and the invisible.
What makes Professor Oster so unusual is that, as the economist daughter of economist parents and married to an economist, she decided to address all aspects of the parental experience using the techniques that she knew best. She has written two books reassuring us on issues ranging from peanut allergies to alcohol, giving us, she says, a toolkit for making parenting decisions.
Except that it never works like that. You might have a perfectly good toolkit; but there is always a neighbour with a whizzier gadget, or a bloke down the pub who insists that you need this new-fangled gizmo. If we were all content with our own parenting toolkit, there would be no need for the gurus — or, indeed, for Professor Oster.
And what of the parenting principles of Professor Oster herself? It will not come as a surprise to learn, nurtured as they are in a mind full of statistics, that they are somewhat calculated.
She has determined, for example, that the optimal distribution of her time between work and children is eight hours to three, based on ratios of time expended to benefit gained. The Oster family understand that mummy does not do the shopping because she has a “high opportunity cost”. Breastfeeding and nappy-changing in the Oster household are carefully regulated, and monitored according to spreadsheets that would put the common-or-garden tiger mother to shame.
There is, however, a worthwhile and even urgent point to all this number-crunching, for which only a short segment of this interview was allotted. Take breastfeeding. In the United States, where there is no statutory parental leave, poor families in poor jobs have little option other than to work the hours and rely on breast-milk substitutes.
The choices that are so keenly debated in the online parenting forums are not choices for all. If Professor Oster could persuade governments of the need for adequate support for new parents, then her work might, indeed, shape the future.
Once you have completed all the statistical analyses and filled in the day’s spreadsheets, have you still time to read to your children? If not, as Live Wires (Radio 5 Live, Tuesday of last week) reported, you are neglecting an essential part of their upbringing.
The children’s author Cressida Cowell insisted that her ten-point charter for healthy reading was not intended as another rod with which to beat parents, but we felt the strokes all the same.